Sleepwalking in a Nuclear Minefield

As the 21st century unfolds, a new truth is gradually being recognized: Nuclear wea­pons and human security cannot co-exist.

Almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, there are still 25,000 nuclear weapons in existence, about 95 percent held by the United States and Russia with smaller numbers also possessed by the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. All told, half of humanity still lives in a nuclear-weapons state. The total amount of money spent by these countries on their nuclear arsenals exceeds $12 trillion, a stupendous sum only a fraction of which could have resolved the issues of mass poverty, health deficiencies, and education neglect.

During the Cold War, the rationale for the superpowers’ buildup of strategic nuclear weapons was the theory of deterrence. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were each deterred from using their nuclear weapons, according to the theory, in the knowledge that the opponent had the capacity to strike back overwhelmingly. This stand-off was called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). But with the post-Cold War emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, a new nuclear age has begun in which the war-fighting use of nuclear weapons is actually considered and threatened.

The Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by the Bush administration in 2001, established expansive plans to “revitalize” U.S. nuclear forces and all the elements that support them, within a new triad of capacities combining nuclear and conventional offensive strikes with missile defenses and nuclear-weapons infrastructure. Under the subsequent post-9/11 National Security Strategy, the administration said it would take “anticipatory action” (a euphemism for pre-emptive strikes) against enemies of the United States and has not ruled out using nuclear weapons, which remain a cornerstone of U.S. national security policy.

The Bush administration has sought to modernize its Cold War-era nuclear arsenals under the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. In late 2007, Congress eliminated funding for production of new nuclear bombs from an omnibus spending bill. However, left intact was funding for other programs that functionally include ongoing nuclear weapons research and development and provide for the training of new nuclear weapons scientists and engineers. In fact, Congress has authorized the administration “to develop and submit to the Congress a comprehensive nuclear weapons strategy for the 21st century.” In short, both the administration and Congress continue to anticipate the need to revitalize the present nuclear weapons complex. This approach renders meaningless the disarmament objective implicit in reductions of current numbers of weapons.

U.S. determination to maintain nuclear weapons in the 21st century led Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce in 2004 that Russia is “carrying out research and missile tests of state-of-the-art nuclear missile systems.” Russia, he said, would “continue to build up firmly and insistently our armed forces, including the nuclear component.” The U.K. is replacing its aging submarine-launched Trident nuclear missiles. France and China refuse to be left behind in this new nuclear arms race.

While political and media attention has been focused on Iran and North Korea for their nuclear technology developments, little attention is paid to the heart of the nuclear weapons problem: the refusal of the major powers to negotiate the elimination of their own nuclear weapons while proscribing acquisition by any other state. Brazil put the issue tartly: “One cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect.” The report from the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, an international nongovernmental organization, warns that as long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. And as long as any such weapons remain in any state’s arsenal, “there is as high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. Any such use would be catastrophic.”

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, recently published the results of research showing that even a “limited” nuclear war would damage the earth’s climate in profound, long-lasting ways. Sudden and persistent global cooling would lead to crop failures and massive famine and epidemics of infectious diseases. These findings are derived from regional nuclear war scenarios that are easy to envision as nuclear weapons start to spread to additional countries.

THE POSSIBILITY OF economic collapse and nuclear-war-induced famine from even a small exchange of nuclear weapons should be a wake-up call to governments. However, the 2005 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the largest multilateral arms control treaty in the world—ended in failure. The Bush administration rejected any references to the “unequivocal undertaking” to total nuclear disarmament made by the nuclear weapons states at previous NPT reviews in 1995 and 2000. Iran and Egypt, in turn, blocked proposals to strengthen the treaty to ensure that access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes would not lead to the capacity for bomb-making. This intransigence led Kofi Annan, then U.N. Secretary-General, to warn that the world is “sleepwalking” toward a nuclear catastrophe.

The nuclear weapons states like to brag about their reductions in the number of nuclear weapons and the safety of their security systems. But with the U.S. and Russia maintaining at least a total of 2,500 nuclear weapons on “high alert” status—meaning they could be fired on 15 minutes’ notice—the danger of malfunction or a decision made in panic cannot be denied. The nuclear weapons states play a game of “disarmament” in which weapons reductions are only a cover for modernization programs that ensure nuclear weapons will be held well into the second half of the 21st century.

While all nuclear weapons states must bear their share of the responsibility for imperiling global security, the United States, by far the most militarily powerful country in the world, bears a special responsibility. The U.S. accounts for almost half of all world military expenditures and spends $110 million a day on its nuclear forces. The Union of Concerned Scientists—a group not given to hyperbole—says, “Current U.S. nuclear weapons policy is outdated, dangerous, and misguided.” Former President Jimmy Carter, writing of the Carter Center’s work in monitoring compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, says, “We … strongly condemn the recent abandonment by the United States of those agreements previously negotiated and its failure to pursue other restraints.”

THE DUPLICITY OF THE nuclear powers—and the threat to all life that they maintain so cavalierly—should trouble all who seek an ethical basis for human security.

All major religions teach a culture of peace (see “‘A Crime Against God and Humanity,’” page 30). Do not do unto others what you do not want done to you—this Golden Rule, or the ethic of reciprocity, is found in the scriptures of nearly every religion and is often regarded as the most concise and general principle of ethics. The insinuation of nuclear weapons into permanent military doctrines directly counters this ethic. Moreover, incorporating into ongoing public policies weapons whose chief characteristic is to kill massively violates the universality of human rights.

Since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 seems so long ago, and new generations have grown up without a vivid reminder of what nuclear weapons do, the horror of these weapons needs to be recalled. Nuclear weapons are not just an advanced form of weaponry: They have the power to decimate the natural environment that has sustained humanity since the beginning of time. Nuclear weapons, in addition to causing massive death and destruction, induce cancers and congenital deformities and result in health-related problems for decades.

The magnitude of the nuclear weapons problem now calls for a massive, interfaith effort to unequivocally condemn the possession of nuclear weapons by any state. It must be communicated in crystal-clear terms to political leaders everywhere that nuclear weapons can no longer be tolerated. The leaders need to hear an authentic and united call, on behalf of all the people of the world, that nuclear doctrines must be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations.


WHILE THE VOICE of religion in ad­dressing the immorality of nuclear weapons is important, sustained follow-up is even more necessary to impress on lawmakers the widespread nature of moral concern. Religion must do more than speak forcefully. It must learn to work with secularists toward the common goal of disarmament. Religious leaders must find a way to show that morality is not something added on to daily affairs; rather, it must be a first principle in any discussion of nuclear weapons, since morality speaks to the continuation of life. Once this essential truth is recognized, new coalitions of action become possible.

Religious and secular language must be fused to show that the morality issue is at the very base of our common humanity. Religious and secular leaders must make the compelling case that it is inhuman to rely for security on a culture of massive violence, and that nuclear weapons are unacceptable instruments for maintaining peace in the world. It is not a question of nuclear weapons being tolerable for some, who consider themselves entitled to hold these weapons for security, but intolerable for others not deemed worthy of trust. Nuclear weapons are inherently evil. Nuclear weapons and human security cannot co-exist on the planet. Nuclear weapons are anti-human.

Just when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its follow-up instruments have made it clear that every human—no matter the culture, religion, ideology, or geography—has the right to life, we have perfected our ability to kill massively. This contradiction grotesquely distorts the meaning of life. The gradual increase in humanity’s understanding of itself will lead to societal condemnation of nuclear weapons when it is fully understood that such instruments of evil are a violation of life itself.

Douglas Roche is an author, Canadian parliamentarian, and diplomat who has specialized throughout his 35-year public career in peace and human security issues. He is chair of the Middle Powers Initiative (

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